Judith Merril was probably the most notable science fiction anthologist of the sixties. She was completely aligned with her decade, and probably wouldn’t have felt out of place at one of Warhol’s happenings. Her selections and her own written intros were very self-consciously built to reflect the intellectual trends of the sixties. We’ve discussed her before many times, and even dedicated individual posts to two of her books (here and here).
I’m not a fan of her work in the sixties. She had a few too many pretentious works to choose from and as a consequence, her anthos veered into the strongly literary as opposed to being SF collections of the kind I enjoy. I don’t read genre work for its literary merit–I prefer the books to be well-written, but I’ve found that the more experimental they get, the less I enjoy them. You can replace “experimental” with “political” and the previous sentence still works. I don’t mind “intellectual” quite as much, but if that intellectual tangent is exploring a faddish (or even lastingly popular) social question then it’s unlikely to hold my interest very long.
So what happens when an anthologist whose tendencies are New Wave, puts together an antho before there were New Wave stories to select?
The answer to that is The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy – Second Annual Volume, and the other answer is that you get a really good book.
Under the masterful guidance of the great John W. Campbell, the most important and influential editor the SF field has ever known (and likely WILL ever know), the genre had evolved from a literature that focused on sword and planet stories where the science was secondary (if addressed at all), to the genre we know and love.
Mature stories, and places where they could be published began to appear, and writers with a more literary bent found themselves able to sell stories that would have languished in an earlier era. The genre became the stomping ground of many great stylists…
But the conditions were not yet in place for them to completely undermine the foundations of what made SF a popular pastime. They had to play within a certain set of rules, and apply their undoubted talent and literary inclinations to building a fun or intriguing speculative story. Navel-gazing or mindless political or social tracts were out of the question. So was excessive experimentation.
It’s possible to argue that the years selected, 1955 and 1956, might represent one of the true great ages of the SF genre. Great names like Asimov, Knight, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Budrys and Ballard were present, but the field had already expanded to include such outlets as Galaxy and Playboy, magazines that went well beyond Astounding’s traditional formula. We had all the literary merit without any of the forgettable pretentiousness that arrived with the 1960s.
Even Merril, whose eye for a good story clearly wasn’t as bad as her work from the 60’s made it appear, couldn’t mess this group up. The book is massively strong all the way through, and represents what can happen when that happy middle ground is achieved. It would not be found again until the post-new wave reminded everyone that SF is supposed to be fun, and literary aspirations and politics are secondary (a lesson that we seem to have forgotten in the 2010s as purely political forces again besiege the genre – luckily, it’s happened before, and they will go away and bug someone else, eventually).
Interestingly, the antho’s strength lies in the fact that all the stories entertain, more than in having one or two standouts. Of the tales in this volume, the best is probably Sturgeon’s “The Other Man”, but they are all pretty close.
Anyway, this is a good one. Probably not too hard to find, but these old paperbacks are starting to disintegrate, so best hurry.
Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several books in various genres, including the well-received science fiction novel Outside. You can check it out here.