You Should Read: THE 1977 ANNUAL WORLD’S BEST SF anthology

I picked this up at a library book sale a year or so ago, and promptly forgot all about it. If I had read the table of contents, I would have sat down and read the book immediately. Joanna Russ! Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”! Tiptree! It wasn’t until I bought new bookshelves and rearranged my collection that I realized what my spare dollar had gotten me.

  • Introduction (Donald A. Wollheim) – Is pretentious too strong a word to use for this guy? From his intro to the blurbs he puts at the beginning of each story, as if having to defend why he chose to reprint it, he comes off as thinking his readers don’t know as much as he does, which is always off-putting (and usually wrong). Ignore him.
  • “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss – I thought this story worked a little too hard to make a point about the ways in which we fail as humans today, by showing what the future (65,000 years into the future) version of us would think of us. The current us is a long-dead specimen, an ugly point on the physical evolution of humanity, a museum piece. From this perspective, future-human sees our flaws and waxes philosphical about them. The story did bring up some interesting ideas about umwalt and the potential for humans to be influenced by outside sources; I’ll file some of them away for later.
  • “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (John Varley) – I liked this quite a bit. The odd things throughout the story were suitably explained by the end, and I can see it as a precurser to a lot of cyber-fiction I like from more recent authors. Fun settings, from the “Kenya Disneyland” on the moon to the world the main character creates for himself in his head.
  • “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (Michael G. Coney) – The narrator here is hard to like. He’s telling an anecdote from his youth, but he doesn’t have positive things to say about anyone it. He essentially just bitches about his old friends until we catch up to him in present day, where he has an opportunity to reconnect with one of the people he’s been talking about – but chooses not to, on the grounds that they have nothing to say to each other. So, we just have to listen to you bitch, and there’s no character arc, no resolution at the end? Eh.
  • “The Hertford Manuscript” (Richard Cowper) – Maybe if I cared more about HG Well’s Time Machine, or hadn’t already seen/read a million adaptations from that story, I’d have been more impressed. This goes along with a few others as being probably innovative in 1977, but boring today. It’s not badly written but the framework of the story – an old book handed down by a dead aunt with a secret inside – wasn’t original even in 1977.
  • “Natural Advantage” (Lester del Rey) – Wonderful. It presents aliens as the main characters, with Earth/humanity as an outside force that is met and re-met, but doesn’t go on the journey. It has a little of that “humans are teh awesome and will always win” propaganda common from the time, but it doesn’t overwhelm the heart of the tale. The way that the aliens cherish humanity is what gives the story its emotional weight. To be seen, from the outside, as worth remembering, worth missing … that feeling makes the last paragraph of the story work.
  • “The Bicentennial Man” (Isaac Asimov) – I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the story until now. I liked it! I can see why it was so influential, and it’s one of those classic tales that, if you like robot stories, you’re going to want to have read.
  • “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” (Barrington J. Bayley) – This story tried to do so much. It introduced several novel ideas, but in the end the author chose the easy out of tossing the main character into a void so none of the science had to be explained, or, you know, work. It felt lazy.
  • “My Boat” (Joanna Russ) – Like Coney’s story, this one has a narrator recounting an incident from his teen years, but not only is the anecdote far more interesting (even though it coves many of the same themes, including a male friend leaving him to spend time with a new female) but it also has a conclusion that leaves the reader hopeful and enchanted. It’s one of the best pieces in the book.
  • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (James Tiptree, Jr.) – I had to try to forget everything that came after this story because by now I’ve seen it redone a hundred times, but looking at it by itself, it’s quite good. It has a very strong opinion about the (assumed) primal dominance of men and the utopia of a women-only society, which I don’t actually agree with, but the philosophy is present inside of strong storytelling. There are definite bad guys but there’s also a mostly harmless guy to show the range of male personalities, instead of simply writing them all off. I’m also not sure if I agree with the idea that the main society in the story would actually have slowed way down the way it did, but I liked that the author took the future to the logical conclusion for the rules she set for it. Bonus points for logical follow-through, always.
  • I See You” (Damon Knight) – I rarely like second-person perspective, but it fits the story here. The author alternates between 2nd per, talking to you, and third-person, talking about the inventor of a device which changes people’s perspective, and is what makes the way he talks to you make sense. It isn’t the best story in the collection but it is a solid way to end the book. Definitely recommend to people who are interested in that kind of PoV shifting. The science isn’t as novel as the storytelling, but with an author this deft, it doesn’t need to be.

Overall, there was more to like than dislike, and at least half of the stories stood the test of time. If you see it, read it.

Note: My personal library has a decent-sized stack of “classic” science fiction, most of which I’ve read. There are a few recently acquired works, like this one, which I hadn’t read until this week. They range from truly “classic” era SF (40s and 50s) to late 70s “it’s not new so it’s old and it’s kind of important so we’ll call it classic“. I will continue to review the modern titles which I think you should be reading, but I because I think it’s important to know the books which influenced contemporary writers – including myself – I am going to start reviewing the older books too. You can find them under the classic fiction tag.

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