As you probably realized by the mere existance of this series, I love going back into the past of he genre and looking at the short fiction of the past. Of course, the actual subject matter is dictated by my strict first-in-first-out reading order which, by making things even more random and eclectic aparently jives with our manifesto.
This time, we travel back to the sixties, and if we’re talking about short fiction in the sixties, one name towers above the rest: Judith Merril, the decades great anthologist.
By great, of course, I mean the most influential and trend-setting as opposed to the best. I’ve gone on record more than once in saying that her attempts to turn science fiction into a bastion of literary experimentation aligned with the pop consciousness of the era were misguided. She isn’t well-rememberedtoday outside of the students of the genre.
I still read any of her books I can get my hands on. The history of SF in the sixties, though much less significant than the Golden Age, is still interesting. It was then that the genre gained a cerain amount of respectablity: stories from Merrill’s antho’s having origins as diverse as The Atlantic and even The New Yorker, something unheard of in Campbell’s time.
All of the above actually prefaces a Merril antho that is less literary than most – after all, as the major anthologist of her era, she couldn’t dedicate herself exclusively to the obscure, experimental and unreadable. It’s entitled SF The Best of the Best Part Two.
By pulling out the best of the stuff from her series of anthologies, a certain amount of dross that seemed like a good and cutlurally relevant idea at the time could be eliminated. The cream that rose to the top and populates this book is still an annoying mix of pseudoscience, PSI and media (in that infant era of media which thought it was mature) without much in the way of exploration of things that weren’t of concern to the intellectuals of the day, but at least it’s perfectly readable. Any one of these stories inserted into a book of more traditional SF tales would make a nice change of pace. There’s even Sheckley stoy that foreshadows The Truman Show. An entire book is a bit much, though.
A reader looking for far future stories, space opera or even just some fun Earth-bound tech stories, will need to look elsewhere. For Merril, those things don’t belong in Science Fiction and are a bit lowbrow.
Even the Asimov and the afrementioned Sheckley are pretty much character driven social stories. Not bad, just a little lacking in the sensawunda compared to other offerings from these two. Aldis or Budrys, of course, are a much more comfortable fit here.
Anyway, this is an interesting book, like everything Merril edited. She was influential even if she was guiding the genre in the wrong direction. When SF stops being fun to lock itself in an ivory tower, what happens is wht is happening today: readers flock to fantasy in droves, and SF moves away from the printed page to the big screen.