Friday, July 20, 2018

FFB: S-F: THE YEAR'S GREATEST SCIENCE-FICTION AND FANTASY (First Annual) edited by Judith Merril (Dell; Gnome Press 1956); THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION STORIES AND NOVELS: Ninth Series edited by T. E. Dikty and Earl Kemp (Advent: Publishers/Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club 1958)

The last and the first.

In 1956, Judith Merril was already a veteran anthologist in the fantastic-fiction arena, her first effort thus a 1950 assembly of sf, fantasy and horror from Bantam entitled Shot in the Dark in part because that's how the publishers looked at the project; you don't see stories by Jack London, Merril's old Futurian Society friend John Michel and Marjorie Allingham in immediate succession in too many books then, or now.  She was given, by Dell, the opportunity to edit the second US-based Best of the Year series to focus on short sf and fantasy, stressing the former...she could live with that...S-F in her early volumes officially stood for "science-fantasy" in the broadest sense (later, it abbreviated her revival of Robert Heinlein's suggestion of "speculative fiction"--covering all the fantastic, as Merril used it). Since 1949, there had already been a primarily science fictional BOTY, from the minor but professional hardcover house Frederick Fell, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and Ted Dikty (and George Kelley has been reviewing each in turn); Bleiler tapped out with the 1954 volumes, The Best Science Fiction of the Year and Year's Best Science Fiction Novels (devoted to novelets and novellas), perhaps in part because Fell didn't want to go forward with the longer-story annual, and the remaining volumes combined the shorter and longer stories. Dikty came to depend more and more on unofficial co-editor Earl Kemp, who was also part of the group of s-f/fanzine/convention fans who in 1955 came together to form Advent: Publishers, mostly with the intent of collecting Damon Knight's critical essays and reviews in book form, and In Search of Wonder saw its first edition that year. Advent decided to continue in that mode (publishing books about sf  and related matter by James Blish, Robert Bloch and others), and apparently Fell, which began publishing operations in 1949 with, among other books, an artistically wildly uneven and not terribly commercial set of sf releases, and whose sf program shrank almost immediately to their two annuals, decided after the 1956 volume that they didn't want to publish The Best Science Fiction of the Year either, and so there was no 1957 volume...but there was a 1958 volume, published via a partnership between Advent and Doubleday's Science Fiction Book Club: Doubleday printed the copies, including the perhaps thousand or so Advent received for sale to the general and library trade, while the SFBC edition, identical except for the lack of price on the jacket and "Book Club Edition" in its usual place on the front flap, was made available to the membership.  The fan-initiated Gnome Press, one of the most prosperous (but apparently not the most ethically-run) of the small houses publishing a lot of sf and fantasy magazine reprint material the larger houses weren't picking up too readily in the early and mid 1950s, got the rights to publish the hardcover editions for the first several volumes from Dell, till Gnome began to completely collapse and Merril and Dell struck up a deal with Simon & Schuster for the hardcover editions with the fourth volume. Meanwhile, the Richard Powers cover for the Dell paperback and the Edward Emshwiller design for the Gnome hardcover jacket were both typically wonders who misspelled Avram Davidson's name below, however--and left off Shirley Jackson's name altogether!

SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy ed. Judith Merril (Gnome, 1956, $3.50, 352pp, hc)
While writer Julian May (Dikty)'s clip art-style and basic typography cover for the Advent/SFBC final volume was certainly functional (she was far better known for her story "Dune Roller"--which she also illustrated for its magazine appearance--and would return to writing sf after a long hiatus with a series of novels, and also short movie novelizations as by "Ian Thorne", in the early 1980s).

The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 9th Series ed. T. E. Dikty and Earl Kemp (Advent:Publishers; Doubleday SFBC, 1958, hc; 258 + vi pp)
    • · The Science-Fiction Year · T. E. Dikty · ar
    • 14 · 2066: Election Day · Michael Shaara · ss Astounding Dec 1956
    • 28 · The Mile-Long Spaceship · Kate Wilhelm · ss Astounding Apr 1957
    • 37 · The Last Victory · Tom Godwin · ss If Aug 1957
    • 53 · Call Me Joe · Poul Anderson · nv Astounding Apr 1957
    • 85 · Didn’t He Ramble · Chad Oliver · ss F&SF Apr 1957
    • 97 · The Queen’s Messenger · John J. McGuire · nv Astounding May 1957
    • 119 · The Other People · Leigh Brackett · nv Venture Mar 1957, as “The Queer Ones”
    • 155 · Into Your Tent I’ll Creep · Eric Frank Russell · ss Astounding Sep 1957
    • 164 · Nor Dust Corrupt · James V. McConnell · ss If Feb 1957
    • 178 · Nightsound · Algis Budrys · ss Satellite Science Fiction Feb 1957, as “The Attic Voice”
    • 189 · The Tunesmith · Lloyd Biggle, Jr. · nv If Aug 1957
    • 226 · Hunting Machine · Carol Emshwiller · ss Science Fiction Stories May 1957
    • 233 · The Science-Fiction Book Index · Earl Kemp · ix
One notes both anthologies hew pretty closely to the sf and fantasy magazines for their selections, with the Merril showing a slightly greater eclecticism in sources, if not to nearly the same degree she would later, with stories from a paperback collection and Bluebook and Good Housekeeping, the latter by fantastic specialist Jack Finney. Both mix new and veteran writers, and both limit the contributions by women writers to three each...if rather stellar trios: Shirley Jackson, Mildred Clingerman and Zenna Henderson in the Merril, Leigh Brackett, Kate Wilhelm and Carol Emshwiller in the Dikty/Kemp. Only Jackson and Brackett could be considered true veterans at time of inclusion, though Clingerman, Henderson and Emshwiller were a few years into their careers. 

The Merril book begins with Orson Welles's account of his wife Paola Mori and a publisher friend going and buying the actor/director a gift of a shelf-full of sf and similar novels, and how little he enjoyed most of the course of making a pitch for the short fiction in the field, which was less likely to be written by an opportunistic veteran or tyro writer, either sort frequently not up to speed with the best of sf, as the novels often were in 1955. Not that there was any lack of hackwork in the magazines, particularly the lesser ones, which were undergoing the first thinning out, after a boom in the early 1950s in the wake of the insurgent successes of the new Galaxy and the improved, more mature Startling Stories, and the continuing good profitability of Astounding SF, as the American News Company, the distributor which handled perhaps half  or more of the magazine traffic in the States, was beginning to lose some of its major clients before the company was sold off piecemeal in 1957 for its real estate and other assets, more valuable by some distance in total than its stock price had been. The glut of magazines had made it possible for a half-competent writer to place any given half-competent story Somewhere in the field, but this also didn't do any favors for the magazines as a whole, since it meant casual or first-time sf/fantasy magazine readers often were as likely to find a mediocre experience at best in their purchase as a good or better one. But, nonetheless, the magazines did tend to have editors more knowledgeable about sf, fantasy and horror than the paperback or hardcover book houses did, with some few exceptions...and even the lower-budgeted magazines often featured work less spavined than too many of the novels, whether new books or primitive or otherwise unworthy reprints. It might also be noted that Dell was fond of getting some sort of Name associated with their magazines and paperback anthologies in those years, not infrequently a Hollywood celebrity such as Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. 

Merril's first-volume preface is brief, and agrees with Welles's notion that sf and fantasy are the Fables of Today in 1956. And then leads off the fiction in her first volume with a relatively clumsy "first story", R. R. Merliss's "The Stutterer", which would turn out to be its young medical-doctor/writer's only story (at very least under his own name) in the sf/fantasy media; he would write two novels with medical themes, one an historical novel set during the Black Plague years, and the other a contemporary novel about life as a med student and intern, published in the 1960s, as by Reuben Merliss. The story, given it was published in Astounding, is remarkably clumsy not only in its literary qualities (often overlooked in that magazine) but also in some of its technological aspects, as it posits android soldiers built from an alloy so hard that an atomic blast at ground zero will do no more to it than crystallize a thin outer layer of it, without bothering to explain how such a material might be shaped or otherwise worked with in manufacture. Merliss also frequently jumps from
one character to another in terms of point of view in a scene to no good purpose, and explains every action of his characters at times in such a way that should've been pruned, but this was the beginning of the Tin Age at John Campbell's Astounding, where his attention was beginning to be concentrated in fringe "science" and the political content of his editorials, and such miserable writers as E. B. Cole and the blandest sort of yard-goods writing by those who could do better, such as the young Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, began to be staples of the magazine. Not a terrible story, but probably the worst in the book, and a very poor choice to start with. 

The next, much better story is also about an android, one of Avram Davidson's most famous, if a bit heavy on the fan service and easy schtick, "The Golem" elderly couple, the Gumbeiners, are visited one afternoon by a lumbering, gray-complected fellow who invites himself up onto their front porch, and begins to lecture them about how there is clearly an innate emnity between humanity and androids such as itself. The Gumbeiners are unimpressed. 

Humor, a bit more labored, continues with Robert Abernathy's "Junior", involving sentient polypoid sea creatures including an innovative young male who manages to upset tradition. A lot of fan service in this one, though with a cute notion to end with. 

James Gunn's "The Cave of Night" is, like the Davidson, his earliest widely-cited story, an account of the first human astronaut, launched in military secrecy and on a budget mission...and apparently through misadventure stranded in his disabled space capsule in Earth orbit, making broadcasts to the Earth below over shortwave as he awaits probably unlikely rescue or for his oxygen to run out in about a month's time. The pompous tone which runs through the piece is not completely excused by it being told by an old newspaper-reporter friend of the broadcasting astronaut. Nicely encapsulates the notion of three-stage rocketry for Earth-based space exploration, and deftly describes the impressive vistas from an orbiting craft, though.

More to come.


Paul Fraser said...

Briefly comparing the contents of the Merril (or her editor who made the final cut) against the Asimov/Greenberg makes me wonder if this was more a “varied selection” than a “Best”.
Why was it called Astounding’s “Tin Age”?

Todd Mason said...

A joke on "the Golden Age"...much of what Campbell was running was perfunctory at best. E. B. Cole's "Philosophical Corps" stories were the worst imitation of Jack Vance anyone would see till Barry Longyear's "Momus" stories in the latest '70s, and about as omnipresent.

Merril made all her own choices for the first several volumes, as far as I know...but she was constrained a bit for those same early volumes by which stories were snapped up by Dikty and Kemp, and what was tied up for the annual volumes from F&SF...this lack of competition for stories, and the arguments the DAW books' editorial team would have with each other and with the verdicts of history made it easier for the latter-day books to seem more impressive, I'd say...but the 1956 Merril, for example, has several of the more brilliant stories yet published in the field, and the Dikty/Kemp is no slouch either, as I hope to suggest, if not quite up to the Merril. The Dikty/Kemp annual was gone just in time for her to have moved the hardcover contract over the soon-overweening Simon & Schuster, and when she finally got Dell to publish the hardcovers through Delacorte Press, the Ace Wollheim/Carr book started up.

Todd Mason said...

I'd say the first Merril compares rather well to the 1955 Asimov/Greenberg retro book, and overlaps not a little...notable that the Asimov/Greenberg leaves out the non-fantasy/sf by Shirley Jackson but includes a very similar borderline-at-best by Charles Beaumont...both stories from F&SF, unsurprisingly. Frederik Pohl's "The Tunnel Under the World" is more satirical fantasy, and excellent in that, but Pohl was underrated in those years...

9 • 1955 Introduction (The Great SF Stories #17 (1955)) • essay by Martin H. Greenberg
13 • The Tunnel Under the World • (1955) • novelette by Frederik Pohl
46 • The Darfsteller • (1955) • novella by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
112 • The Cave of Night • [Station in Space Universe] • (1955) • short story by James E. Gunn
130 • Grandpa • [The Hub] • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
153 • Who? • (1955) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon (variant of Bulkhead)
187 • The Short Ones • (1955) • novelette by Raymond E. Banks
209 • Captive Market • (1955) • short story by Philip K. Dick
228 • Allamagoosa • (1955) • short story by Eric Frank Russell
243 • The Vanishing American • (1955) • short story by Charles Beaumont
254 • The Game of Rat and Dragon • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
270 • The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
277 • Nobody Bothers Gus • [Gus] • (1955) • short story by Algis Budrys
292 • Delenda Est • [Time Patrol • 5] • (1955) • novelette by Poul Anderson
333 • Dreaming Is a Private Thing • (1955) • short story by Isaac Asimov

Todd Mason said...

While the Dikty/Kemp is mostly a BOTY for 1957 (since the of-1956 volume was mostly skipped), and it stacks up reasonably well against the Asimov/Greenberg with this lineup in the latter:
9 • Introduction (The Great SF Stories #19 (1957)) • essay by Martin H. Greenberg
15 • Strikebreaker • (1957) • short story by Isaac Asimov
33 • Omnilingual • [Federation • 1] • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper
89 • The Mile-Long Spaceship • (1957) • short story by Kate Wilhelm
103 • Call Me Joe • (1957) • novelette by Poul Anderson
149 • You Know Willie • (1957) • short story by Theodore R. Cogswell
157 • Hunting Machine • (1957) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
167 • World of a Thousand Colors • (1957) • short story by Robert Silverberg
187 • Let's Be Frank • (1957) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss
199 • The Cage • (1957) • short story by A. Bertram Chandler
215 • The Education of Tigress McCardle • (1957) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth (variant of The Education of Tigress Macardle)
229 • The Tunesmith • (1957) • novelette by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
281 • A Loint of Paw • (1957) • short story by Isaac Asimov
285 • Game Preserve • (1957) • short story by Rog Phillips
305 • Soldier • (1957) • novelette by Harlan Ellison
335 • The Last Man Left in the Bar • (1957) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth

--and the Asimov joke story doesn't really deserve inclusion, Ellison and Silverberg weren't too widely respected as a fiction writers, either, at that point (and the Ellison story takes on more importance later as a result of what a/v work was adapted from it), and the Cogswell is more well-meant than actually good...and there's still a fair amount of overlap...

Paul Fraser said...

It was the omission of the Miller, Russell (Hugo winners), Clarke and Smith that made me doubt the Merril.

Todd Mason said...

Well...not all Hugo-winners are created equal, and not even back then. The Dikty/Kemp for 1956 snagged the "Smith" story...and the very arguably even better Walter Miller story before Merril could (as well as including one of Robert Bloch's key short fictions demonstrating his working up to PSYCHO...through another rather borderline inclusion in an SF BOTY). Kemp has noted that their getting the rights to the Miller and "Smith" stories was held rather bitterly against them by Merril--who was partially responsible, along with then-husband Frederik Pohl, for coaxing more sf from "Smith", and who had had a romantic affair with Miller...which helped precipitate the end of her marriage with Pohl:

The Game of Rat and Dragon • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
Swenson, Dispatcher • (1956) • novelette by R. DeWitt Miller
The Man Who Always Knew • (1956) • short story by Algis Budrys
Clerical Error • (1956) • novelette by Mark Clifton
Judgment Day • (1955) • short story by L. Sprague de Camp
Dream Street • (1955) • short story by Frank M. Robinson
The Cyber and Justice Holmes • (1955) • short story by Frank Riley
I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell • (1955) • short story by Robert Bloch
Jungle Doctor • (1955) • novelette by Robert F. Young
The Shores of Night • novella by Thomas N. Scortia
You Created Us • (1955) • short story by Tom Godwin
A Canticle for Leibowitz • [Saint Leibowitz] • (1955) • novelette by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Thing • (1955) • short story by Algis Budrys [as by Ivan Janvier]
The Science-Fiction Book Index • essay by Earl Kemp
The Science-Fiction Year • essay by T. E. Dikty

Todd Mason said...

Also, the relevant Asimov/Greenberg leaves out the utterly brilliant "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight...perhaps thinking that since it's one of the highlights of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, Volume 1, still in print at that time, it might not need reprinting as much as some others. Or something.

Paul Fraser said...

Mmm. Don’t know why they would leave the Knight story out—the fact that it is in another book shouldn’t have mattered. I’ll have to dig my copy out to see if they say anything.
Where are Earl’s comments? FM?

Todd Mason said...

Mostly in his fanzine EI, as I recall.