Monday, April 29, 2019

Time Capsule: SF - The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (1956)

Cover Art: Richard Powers

Joe: We do enjoy our conversation pieces here at Nerds of a Feather and though we do love talking about awards, we wanted to step back from that and instead to focus a conversation around one book much as we did with our roundtable Vigilance review.

We are hopeful that this will be the first in a new series of focused conversations and with that in mind, we wanted to pick something that felt like a spiritual successor to our Feminist Futures conversation.

Judith Merril may be best known today is a short fiction writer. Her debut story “That Only a Mother” was reprinted in Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder anthology as well various Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies and more. Merril’s influence on the genre, though, is less about her fiction than it his for her editorial work (and more). Merril was the editor of twelve editions of Year’s Best anthologies (which included inconsistent title naming conventions, ranging from “The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy” to simply “SF12”), the first edition of the Tesseracts series anthologizing Canadian short fiction, and an additional seven anthologies (including England Swings SF notable for helping to launch the New Wave in the United States). Merril also helped to found the highly influential and important Milford Writer’s Conference with Damon Knight and James Blish.

Today we’re talking about Judith Merril’s first Year’s Best anthology: SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, originally published in 1956.

Adri: Yes! Second hand retailers have been scoured, books have crossed oceans (well, the North Sea), and I have had the kind of fragile paperback reading experience which has renewed my love of ebooks, and of publishers like Gollancz, who make a lot of classic longer SF accessible on e-reader.

Paul: I am reminded that rights make it difficult to get many of these older anthologies except in falling-apart paperbacks. I do think there is something lost when these things fall out of print, because the notes make this more, in my view, than just the sum of the stories. There is value in reading this collection above and beyond the individual stories themselves.

On that note, one thing I did like in this anthology that you don’t get in a lot of modern anthologies is the “Sewing together” that Merrill does in providing explicit direction as to what she was thinking in placement of stories on subject and theme. I don’t think that gets enough play these days, and too often, anthologies seem to have stories in any old order without a sense of how they reflect and refract on each other. Merrill WANTS you to know what she is thinking. It’s a more “present” place for an anthologist than what you get these days.

Joe: I’m not sure what surprised me more, that the introduction to this anthology was written by Orson Welles or the tone of it. Here is how Welles opens his essay:
“One thing’s sure about science-fiction: there’s too much of it.

A leading editor in the field announces that the boom days are over, but the yearly amount of the stuff that still gets into print is pretty staggering.

My advice to any but the most bug-eyed addict would be to abstain from the novels. “S.F.” is often at its aching worst in “book-length” versions”
The rest of the essay proceeds by being a knock down of nearly all of the science fiction novels of the day, most of the stories, and many of the magazines. It’s as if Welles is trying to sell this anthology by saying it is the only thing that matters and that everything else is bunk.

I want to quote the entirety of the Orson Welles essay, but I don’t want to contact his estate for the rights.

Adri: Yes, the introduction is fascinatingly backhanded. Even the praise for short fiction, and the stories in this anthology, is qualified by comparing them to fables and suggesting that it’s hard to get a fable wrong. Orson Welles is a big deal, so I guess he could say what he wants and “introduction by Orson Welles” would still be a selling point for the anthology, but it adds this tone of self-deprecation to the anthology as a whole which is just a bit unnecessary?

Joe: The other quote I’d like to offer up for comment is from Judith Merril in her preface.
“The serious-minded reader will also have to forgive our authors if they resort to the frivolities of space-ships and flying bath-mats, robots and talking rats, to make their points. Even in s-f, a writer is only secondarily a philosopher; his first big job is entertainment...and that hasn’t changed since Aesop’s time at all”
I find it fascinating that Merril’s preface talks about the big ideas science-fantasy writers are tackling and not providing neat answers, how the stories are the testing ground for why and what if, but then she weirdly undercuts it at the end. Of course, that’s how it presents in 2019 to a reader steeped in science fiction and fantasy, who lives in a time where speculative fiction is at the forefront of popular culture, where there is no shame except in the highest of literary towers to tell a story smacking of genre. How would that preface have read sixty years ago when this anthology was first published?

Adri: It’s timely to look back at this at the same time that there’s been some conversation on Twitter about the current direction of genre snobbery between literary fiction and SFF, and how some who read across both camps feel there’s more coming *from* the SFF-verse and the wholesale dismissal of litfic as “professors with midlife crises starting inappropriate relationships”, whereas on the literary side SFF themes are quite widely accepted as potential areas of exploration. I can only interpret Merril’s introduction as the kind of putdown one comes to when you’re pre-empting other people getting there first?

Joe: Equally interesting, Merril’s conclusion almost reinforces the intro from Orson Welles, “This was the year the house collapsed. The house of cards, I mean, otherwise known as the Science Fiction Boom”. Merril seems to be talking about the state of science fiction publishing, and it is an echo we hear about time and time again in the more than sixty years since this anthology was published.

Adri: What I found interesting about the stories in here is that they challenged my biases about the kinds of themes that this era of SF dealt with and valued, even as they confirmed my suspicions about the representation of humanity in said stories. For example, the opening story, “The Stutterer”, deals with an invulnerable robot who is being hunted down by humans, but whose inner life shows he is just as alive and worthy of respect. This is the first of a few “humanising the other” stories here, which is more interested in exploring psychological responses to the robot than to going into detail about the fictional metal he’s made of, but the “humanisation” is done by giving him a neurotypical white male psyche that’s clearly supposed to read as “default”.

Also, given that there’s a certain narrative about classic SF as being about “fun” and “the adventure”, which does shape the conversation despite the… agendas… of many who promote it, it’s interesting to see stories like “The Hoofer” and “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”, which deals in the day-to-day struggles of people living their lives in space or with fantastic elements, without having to make galaxy-changing decisions.

Joe: I’ve read a lot of feminist science fiction over the last year written during this period, as well as a number of anthologies featuring stories from the era. There were certainly fun adventure stories chock full of action and swordplay and ray guns, but they were no more fully reflective of their era as you could say that the 1980’s and 1990’s were all about a particular style of epic fantasy because of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond Feist, and Robert Jordan. It’s never just one thing.

Paul: “Pottage” by Zenna Henderson felt really like something from a “different planet” as does a lot of other Henderson work as put aside Campbellian Science Fiction. And even as it has a female MC and is seemingly of a separate strand of SF, it still manages to touchstone some SF stropes. Psi powers. A MC who knows more than she is telling at first, and only in time reveals what she knows--and what she does.

More contemporaneously, the cult like atmosphere of the repressed group is interesting, and also what about immigration and minorities in today’s society--they feel real different than they did when I first read them.

Joe: SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy is by no means a feminist anthology. If I can count, only three and a half of the eighteen stories are written by women and there is a limited number of female protagonists, let alone the push of the stories. But you are absolutely right - given the generic stereotype of classic science fiction, this anthology is very much not that.

Paul: It does undercut the whole narrative that there was none of this stuff to be found until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Is it overwhelmingly male authors and protagonists? Sure. But there is more representation outside that than I was expecting. I think that’s the editorial hand at work.

Adri: Not to be the disruptive diversity hire here, but despite Merril’s hand at the helm I didn’t have that experience. I got about the level of representation I was expecting, which was next-to-none and generally reinforcing hierarchies when marginalised groups do put in an appearance. Which is fine. It’s fine, guys. Fine. Just fine. I’m glad the genre has moved on.

Joe: I did expect more diversity in the anthology than we got, but that’s because at this point I’m used to seeing Merril mentioned or included in anthologies like Women of Wonder, Sisters of the Revolution, and The Future is Female!, so there’s a connection in my mind that isn’t necessarily on the page or reflective of what her editorial eye might have been (either by design or by necessity)

Adri: I guess it’s hard to judge based on one anthology, when Merril’s contribution to the genre spanned so much writing and editorial work as you mention above. There’s a couple of “Best of the Best” anthologies drawn from the first ten years of these annual editions and I’m intrigued to pick one up and see whether those volumes, with more material to pick from, come across any stronger in their representation - at least of women.

Joe: I’m not going to speak to which story is “best”, but the one that most jumped out at me was “The Cave of Night”, by James Gunn. I dug this story. Gunn references how stories of people trapped in impossible situations until rescue might possibly arrive is transfixing in a way that can’t quite be explained, and then goes on to tell the story of an Air Force pilot, perhaps one of the first astronauts, is hopelessly stuck in the first rocket to orbit the Earth. Remember, “The Cave of Night” was published in 1955 and Yuri Gagarin would not orbit the plane for six more years. In Gunn’s story, the 30 day odyssey captivated a nation and the globe.

Paul: I do have opinions, though, on which stories I thought were the best, or the strongest, or the most resonant for me, and I think we can talk about those stories that worked for it. As it so happens. Joe, I thought Gunn’s story was one of the best of the best of the set for me, too, although I am not sure about the premise, at least if it happened now. Do we have too fractured a landscape of news and information that if it happened now, it would not captivate and motivate the world in the way it does by effect here? Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, though I wouldn’t quibble with the premise.

And I am reminded of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars where the asteroid impact and disaster does mobilize a response to get off of the planet, but even there, MRK is careful to note there are countervailing forces against that push.

Joe: Honestly, I do think we’d get suckered into someone being stuck in orbit. We still get enraptured by that sort of tragedy. The Chilean miners in 2010, Baby Jessica stuck in the well in 1987. Standoffs. I know you said that you’d believe it even ten years ago but not now, but I suspect if there was a major catastrophe AND we could communicate in some fashion with the trapped, we’d respond. We’d listen.

Would it be enough to mobilize the future into a major space race? That’s a much bigger question.

Paul: Very much so. This also puts me in the mind of stories where a fake alien threat is meant to unite the world (also, c.f. Watchmen)

Adri: It’s interesting that you pull this story out - for me, it was an intriguing blend of timeless elements (for an even more recent example than Joe’s, look at the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand last year) as well as being really hard to separate from its time. This was very much the story that brought home to me that I was reading science fiction written before spaceflight, and both this and “Bulkhead” do a convincing but recognisably speculative job of representing what that might be.

On the fictional side, the appeal to collective humanity is a significant motivator for all the humans who aren’t Mark Watney in The Martian: a prominent recent title whose blend of human interest and scientific elements feels like one of the most direct descendents of some of this stuff.

Speaking of stories that gave me a weird mix of 2019 and 1956: check out “The Public Hating”, by Steve Allen, one of the few non-prolific genre authors in the anthology. This tale of future crime and punishment, in which a man is publicly shamed to death by the collective mental powers of the rest, feels in part like the kind of thing someone would write (probably in a Black Mirror episode) while staring meaningfully at Twitter. While there are certainly parallels to be drawn around shame and holding people to account in the public sphere, it’s a pretty shallow analysis - and it also involves a very 1956 exploration of psychic powers (or “psi”) and an inescapable aura of anti-Soviet sentiment which kills the Charlie Brooker vibe somewhat.

Joe: There’s also a bit of the whole “mob mentality” that comes out here, where the protagonist maybe wasn’t all about the hate but was swept up in it - of course, he did come out to participate. Plus, there are echoes of George Orwell’s 1984.

Paul: I was also thinking “Two Minutes of Hate” but with Psi powers which just makes the subtext, text, here. Here, the hatred can literally kill.

I didn’t really remember or grok how much Psi powers were a thing in the 50’s until recently. It’s a nail that gets hit again and again in this volume, in different ways. It might even be a theme: psi powers of aliens, of supermen, of ordinary people, amplified.

Joe: It was seriously a thing, and all the psi-powers puts me into mind of the Darkover novels from Marion Zimmer Bradley, which also began in the late 1950’s (though Bradley is persona non grata and rightfully so).

Adri: Yeah, the psi concept - especially as explored here, and in Clifton’s “Sense from Thought Divide”, hasn’t stood up well as a trope. The main feeling it evoked from me after reading was a desire to go and play the recent X-COM games, which I have just now realised are the main vehicles for these sorts of pulp sci-fi concepts to infiltrate my cultural awareness. So, hey, I guess I do like psi, but only when it turns my freedom fighting supersoldiers into unstoppable purple glowing war machines.

Joe: I expect that a common trivia question would be “Who won the first ever Hugo Award for Best Novel”? (Alfred Bester for The Demolished Man). A harder question would be: Who won the second Best Novel Hugo? That would be Mark Clifton with Frank Reilly for They’d Rather Be Right / The Forever Machine.

Adri: An easier question than you’d think if you’ve ever Googled “what’s the worst Hugo novel winner”, for which this is one of the commonly accepted answers. I haven’t read it, so I couldn’t objectively comment, but Jo Walton makes a pretty compelling case in her history of the Hugos despite also not having picked it up…

Joe: There’s a part of me that has wanted to go back and read all of the Hugo winning novels, but more likely I’ll focus on Dreamsnake (Vonda McIntyre), The Snow Queen (Joan Vinge), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis) this year. Which is besides the point of talking about this anthology, but I do love my digressions. Regardless, I don’t expect to ever get to the Clifton / Reilly novel given how forgettable “Sense from Thought Divide” was. I had already forgotten the story less than two days after finishing it.

Much more memorable for me was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bulkhead. I’m not going to claim that Sturgeon is the most prolific short story writer out there, but his name is synonymous with short fiction (he does have an award named after him, after all).

I got a weird Johnny Got His Gun feeling from “Bulkhead”. Sturgeon doesn’t necessarily reference Dalton Trumbo’s classic 1938 novel, but he does echo the brokenness of Trumbo’s protagonist.

Paul: I thought this was going into “Cold Equations” territory for a really long while, stowaways and all that. I was surprised by the turn into psychology. Really solid writing, character analysis and depth here.

Adri: A bit weird, a bit overly militaristic, but still one of the best stories in the collection for me - really compelling in a way I can’t quite figure out how to describe.

Joe: One final story to briefly discuss is from Shirley Jackson, “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”. The title is somewhat on the nose, because this *is* a very ordinary (if compelling) story with a twist at the end. Because I read far too much genre, I wonder if the older man and his wife were supernatural in any way or if they just go around being good / being complete dicks to people.

Paul: Hey, another genre story from the author of “The Lottery”. The randomness of how the MC (and it turns out his wife) do in changing lives, for good or for ill, does feel rather random. A question that shows how lives can be changed by small encounters, but not very genre. I think the implication is that they ARE supernatural, or at least knowing enough or being skilled enough to “place the lever”. Even in a collection with Psi powers, this felt the most fantastic.

Adri: Funnily enough, I just read “The Lottery” as the only genre story (non-supernatural horror) in an otherwise very literary anthology of forgotten 20th century women authors. Not that I don’t like a good “how sad it was to be a divorcee in 1947” tale, but it really stood out in that company. “One Ordinary Day” feels a lot lighter and not quite at the same level, but it’s still an interesting one.

Paul: Overall, looking at the collection from a couple of weeks remove of reading it, I think that the already noted prosaic nature of a lot of the stories does come back to me time and again. Maybe the Mundane SF crowd have a point about the strength of setting SF right here and now as opposed to more interstellar and galactic horizons. Or maybe the province of space opera and the like really is at a longer length than you typically can manage in a collection of this size. You can in the end only get so much information density on a page.

I want to thank you both for joining me in this look at a seminal SF collection from a seminal figure in the field.

Adri: Yes, this time capsule of an anthology challenged my expectations in ways I didn’t realise it would - which has in turn made me look back and realise where those expectations come from in the first place. As tricky as it was to get hold of this title, and despite the challenge of reading a book that literally started falling apart at the end (sorry, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, but my level of distraction by the time I got to your story calls into question my objectivity as a reviewer), this has been an eye opening exercise for me and one which has definitely rekindled my interest in engaging more with older stories. I’ll not be making that shift at the expense of reading that represents an actual cross section of the human experience, though.

Joe: Even though we know that awards are not the full marker of the importance or skill of a writer, it is notable that Judith Merril has put together an anthology filled with writers who have racked up a significant number of awards and nominations. The writers included here have won 14 Hugo Awards and a total of 45 nominations, 3 Nebula Awards on 28 nominations, and 2 World Fantasy Awards with 6 nominations. There have been 3 recipients of World Fantasy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, 4 writers recognized as SFWA Grandmasters (an honor that can only be given when the writer is still alive), and at least three awards have been named after the the writers collected here. All that when we were nearly twenty years away from the creation of the World Fantasy Awards, almost ten years from the first Nebula Award, and the Hugo Awards were only five years old when this anthology was published.

There’s no real takeaway from noting this, but since we do like to talk about awards and looking back at Merril’s debut Year’s Best anthology from a distance of sixty years, what Judith Merril put together stands up to almost any metric we care to measure the success of an anthology by.

Also, she included a story originally published in Good Housekeeping and that has to be some kind of a first.

Thank you both for the conversation.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine (2017-2019). Minnesotan.

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.