Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, July 6, 2015

1979: The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8 (Carr, Terry)

Watson, Vinge, and Disch redeem an otherwise dull collection (3/5)

Going through my database of books, 1978 doesn’t exactly stand out; there are a few novels (Bob Shaw’s Ship of Strangers, Joan D. Vinge’s The Outcasts of Heaven, and Jean Mark Gawron’s Algorithm), a few collections (Stanley Schmidt’s Lifeboat Earth, Joe Haldeman’s Infinite Dreams, and John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision), an anthology (Jerry Pournelle’s Black Holes), and a translation (Friyes Karinthy’s Voyageto Faremido/Capillaria). According to my book collection, 1978 wasn’t all that great of a year for SF. Regardless, according to the editors ready for an quick buck or easy dollar, a “best of” anthology must be created… and so was born this “best of” anthology.

I must read about five so-called “best of” anthologies and each time I’m disappointed by the content. Thankfully, I only have one remaining unread in my library with stories from 1975: Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fifth Annual Collection (1976). That year wasn’t much better, actually—damn.

Carr’s collection of stories from 1978 seems to be a selection that covers the array of science fiction, as if they were selected to be as broad as possible rather than as good as possible. Even the stories from the good ‘ol boys club (read: Varley, Benford, Leiber, Ing, and Ellison) weren’t good enough to propel this collection along; I had to stop after four stories to read something else in order to regain my interest in reading… actually, the stories from these five authors were among the worst in the collection! Ian Watson, Joan D. Vinge, and Thomas M. Disch all had stories that make this collection a keeper (unless I can find the same stories elsewhere [pray]).


The Barbie Murders (novelette, 1978) – John Varley – 3/5
In an isolated community, every resident has the same physical characteristics, share the same menial labor, and share the same name: Barbie. When one of the barbies is murdered in front of their own by one of their own, they are all part of the victim and all part of the perpetrator. When an outside female investigator is called to the case, her frustration peaks when she can’t get a straight answer from the sexless society, until she choose to don their garb. 34 pages

A Hiss of Dragon (novelette, 1978) – Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw – 2/5
On a planet with one-third the gravity of Earth yet capable of maintaining an atmosphere, the flora of the world—Lex—tends to be spiky on the ground while holding its fruit aloft. This fruit, the thistleberry, is much sought after, so Lex’s resident fauna—the bloat—was genetically altered so that it could harvest the berries. The alteration made the aggressive sacks of hydrogen able to breathe fire, but the daring harvesters are willing to take risks. 21 pages

Black Glass (novelette, 1978) – Fritz Leiber – 2/5
Visiting the city of New York, one man traverses its cold grey arteries of pavement and wanders aimlessly, until he decides to silently follow a woman in a green coat. Meandering, she takes him to Rockefeller Square and into a crowded passage where she mouths a destination to him: atop the south tower of the World Trade Center. Once there, he experiences a hallucination of one subway man’s paranoia of “black foam” in the city. He and the woman conspire to end the foaming. 33 pages

To Bring in Steel (novelette, 1978) – Donald Kingsbury – 3/5
For years in the asteroid belt, Kell is responsible for mining and refining 300 million tons of ore destined for Earth. The cold slag of the mined rock reflects his cold, detached heart; yet, there’s one soft spot for his daughter who just lost her mother to suicide. Kell wants to bring the little precocious girl to the rock but the other miners, all experts in their respective fields, deny him the privilege. So, he hires a charming whore he once met at an orgy to baby-sit on the rock for the next seven years. 47 pages

The Very Slow Time Machine (novelette, 1978) – Ian Watson – 5/5
Amid the confines of the National Physical Laboratory in 1985 appears, with a deafening blow, a galena-shaped machine—a time machine, or sorts. Within is a man living is squalor who doesn’t communicate through his sole glass window. Attempts at investigating the machine are futile and eventually one-way communication with the man is cryptic. The world rejoices in the miracle of the time-traveling man as he seems to age in reverse, while he even promising, belatedly each time, to reveal the truth at a later date, 23 pages

Devil You Don’t Know (novelette, 1978) – Dean Ing – 2/5
Christopher Maffei is a doctor and a spy on psychiatric institutes in America. He may be the brains and face of the secret operation, but the elfin girl Valerie Clarke is the eyes and ears as she puts one a convincing show of being an MR (mentally retarded). Their next institution is in the south where vague and nefarious doctors run a loose shift, according to the buxom nurse Maffei has an eye on; meanwhile, Val discovers the ward’s secrets. 47 pages

Count the Clock That Tells Time (shortstory, 1978) – Harlan Ellison – 2/5
Ian Ross has wasted his life on thinking of his ambitions rather than actively following his dreams. Unknown to him and the millions who waste their lives in idle states, their stagnation accumulates chronons in a nether realm. After so much idleness, their meaningless lives fade into the misty, detached world of the chronons, where history’s events play out. Looking for answers, he instead finds a similar lost soul, as idlein love as he. 21 pages

View from a Height (shortstory, 1978) – Joan D. Vinge – 4/5
Nearing 1,000 AU out from the solar system, Emmylou Stewart is a very isolated woman aboard a space telescope heading further away into deep space. She reflects on her missed opportunities while being very susceptible to all disease on Earth when she was young, on her lack of contact with Earth and her advisor/love-interest Harvey Weems, and the fact that she is so totally isolated. When she burns out her only mode of communication, she transcends anger in order to revel. 18 pages

The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck (novelette, 1978) – Hilbert Schenck – 2/5
In the ice-free yet frigid Atlantic in the late nineteeth century, the Kirkham becomes stranded fifteen miles from the shore on an unforgiving shoal. Amid a treacherous storm off the coast of Nantucket, the crew cower in the face of death, yet Keeper Walter Chase and the Coskata Life Saving Crew are alerted to their peril and rush selflessly to the rescue, regardless of wind and wave. In their favor, Keeper Chase is at the helm of more than the rescue ship—but time itself. 35 pages

Vermeer’s Window (shortstory, 1978) – Gordon Eklund – 3/5
A frustrated painter searches for his skill only to have his mind imprinted with the likeness and image of the obscure Jan Vermeer, who had died more than three hundred years ago. Slowly, in parallel with Vermeer’s own age, the frustrated painter can match the long-dead artists stroke for stroke; however, he can only produce what the artist himself produced, so that all his paintings look like excellent forgeries. His own personal life, too, is just a forgery of Vermeer’s. 17 pages

The Man Who Had No Idea (novelette, 1978) – Thomas M. Disch – 5/5
Barry Riordan wishes to have public conversations with ordinary strangers, but it’s illegal without a license which certifies the holder of being able to hold a conversation. He attains a temporary card and immediately visits a speakeasy where a round robin of others with licenses speak with each other. Barry, however, finds that he actually has very little to say. Eventually, his opinions form and he learns that a good listener is sometimes all the better. At time expires, his position and emotions deepen. 38 pages

An aside here: Disch was a gay author among very few that I can name, along with Frank M. Robinson and Samuel R. Delany (interesting how they all include their middle initial… a dedication to fellow gay SF author Arthur C. Clarke?). In Disch’s story, the protagonist meets an older woman who writes poetry, with whom he has striking conversations, all of which is possibly a reference to Disch’s longtime partner Charles Naylor. At the end of the story, the same protagonist gives his shoe to a female character named Cinderella, rendering him a one-shoed protagonist… much like Delany’s male characters. From a literary perspective, this story is quite good; also from a SF-historical perspective, this story is a snapshot of an era.

Death Therapy (shortstory, 1978) – James Patrick Kelly – 3/5
The Soviets have created a controversial deterrent for perpetrators of serious crimes: subversion to the State. One American doctor brings the knowledge back with him where he hopes to try it on a rapist-cum-murderer. His researcher is Carla Walsh, who begrudgingly accepts the role along with the actual therapy—actual death. She laments on the ethics of the victim’s experience and begins to identify with the human side of the prisoner, Michael Huxol. When push comes to shove, her stance lies with humanity. 28pages

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