My life in outer space

The Year’s Best Science Fiction 3 – Brian W Aldiss (Ed) Harry Harrison (Ed) (1970)

Best SF 1969

This features the brightest and best work published during 1969 with the usual round-up of the year from Harrison as a prologue, and an afterword from Brian Aldiss. It’s interesting to look at this from a historical perspective. John W Campbell, for instance, was still the editor of Analog at the time and sharing the genre with such revolutionary publications as New Worlds.
In Brian Aldiss’s afterword he gives us his thoughts on SF in general and has a sideswipe at the Tolkien clones of the time before trying to convince us all that SF doesn’t actually exist. If one has a serious interest in the history of SF this series is worth getting just for Harrison’s and Aldiss’s overviews of the contemporary SF world.

The Muse – Anthony Burgess (The Hudson Review, 1968)

A very memorable and somewhat grotesque piece from Burgess in which a researcher travels back in time to find Shakespeare. Burgess writes so well that this piece (which in many other writer’s hands would have been labelled ‘predictable’) becomes original, compelling, fascinating, haunting and in some places darkly amusing.

Working in the Spaceship Yards – Brian W Aldiss (Punch, 1969)

Another stylist, Aldiss provides this intelligent and witty account of a young worker, part of a team that works on the FTL engines for Q-class starships. Despite the narrator’s good humour and obvious intelligence and education, there is a bleakness pervading the environment. The starships are sent out and never heard from again, created by artificial intelligences which give amusing answers to questions due to their rather literal interpretation of the language.
Obsolete androids beg on the street and are beaten up if discovered by their newer-model brethren.
Suicide is rife, and the narrator begins his tale by recounting his pleasure in the well-written nature of some of the suicide notes he’s found lying around the shipyard.
It’s a brilliant piece of work, especially considering that nothing much really happens and yet, cleverly, Aldiss manages to cram more background and depth into these few pages than many others do in entire novels.

The Schematic Man – Frederik Pohl (Playboy 1969)

The idea of recording one’s consciousness is a theme Pohl picked up later in his Heechee novels. A mathematician begins to construct a mathematical model of himself within a computer, and then starts to forget things. Like ‘The Muse’, this is a ‘predictable’ piece which is raised to a far higher level by Pohl’s gift seemingly effortless prose and characterisation.

The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone – James Tiptree Jr (Venture Science Fiction magazine 1969)

A post-apocalyptic tale, set in a future Ethiopia where technologically advanced humans (but presumably descended from those affected by radiation and deprived of limbs) kidnap healthy humans living a more primitive existence, presumably for breeding purposes or their clean genes. Like many of the stories in this anthology there is a polished poetic edge to the vision.

The Hospital of Transplanted Hearts – DM Thomas (New Worlds 1969)

The poet has constructed a grid in which the heart of a certain category of patient on one axis can be read against the body of another category of person on another axis. Thus, one can look up the heart of a sadist in the body of a whore and find an apt or witty description inserted therein.

Eco-Catastrophe – Dr Paul, Ehrlich (Ramparts 1969)

A chillingly prophetic future history seen from the perspective of 1969 where mass use of pest killers and fertilisers and the pollution pumped out by world industry sees the beginnings of a process which leads to the death of all life in the oceans. It is perhaps the most relevant and important piece in this book and although Dr Ehrlich’s nightmare scenario has not come to fruition as quickly as he imagined or in exactly the same way much of what he envisages is already taking place. This short but effective piece neatly encapsulates the greed of big business and the stupidity and shortsightedness of governments who fail to address issues such as pollution and population control.

The Castle on The Crag – P. g. Wyal (Fantastic, 1969)

An interesting and poetic tale which makes the same point as that of Ozymandias, the forgotten ruler on whose crumbled works we mighty should look and despair, its moral being that everything eventually will be gone and forgotten.

Nine Lives – Ursula K Leguin (Playboy 1969)

The Welsh Pugh and his colleague Martin have been posted alone on the bleak planet Libra to make a geological survey. After they discover a rich vein of uranium, a ten-part clone, John Chow (five male and five female) arrive to set up a process for extracting the uranium. However, an earthquake leaves nine dead and the surviving clone member has to learn (with the help of Pugh) how to live as a single human being.
It’s a story of extraordinary depth and feeling, rich with background detail and characterisation and still reads, as one or two in this collection do not, as fresh and new.

Progression of The Species – Brian W Aldiss (Holding Your Eight Hands 1969)

A poem from the poetry anthology ‘Holding Your Eight Hands’ (Ed. Edward Lucie-Smith) examining gentic engineering and the modification of human DNA.

Report Back – John Cotton (Holding Your Eight Hands 1969)

A poem, again from the poetry anthology ‘Holding Your Eight Hands’. This is a report back from a distant star in the form of a poem with two distinct voices.

The Killing Ground – JG Ballard (New Worlds 1969)

In this Ballard dystopian nightmare, we follow a group of English rebels in a world where the Vietnam War has spread around the globe. The US is battling with guerilla forces everywhere. Like practically all of Ballard’s work there is far more going on than a first reading might indicate.

The Dannold Cheque – Ken W Purdy (Playboy 1969)

A beautifully written, somewhat whimsical piece by the then editor of Playboy. Cleverly structured, it introduces the characters and the setting with a wealth of poetic, almost incidental detail. From there, the story unfolds like origami gift-wrap.
An artist wishes to collaborate with a politician in the latest of a series of collages which each preserve an object, a photograph and a personal piece of text. Mr Dannold, the politician, who is the latest subject, agrees to write a letter (to be part of the collage) detailing the events of the day in the photograph (where he is caught on camera thwarting the assassination of the Prime Minister). The object to be included is a voided cheque for £250,000.
Thus there is a story within the story in which Mr Dannold’s letter explains how the cheque and the photograph are connected.
Is it SF? One could argue otherwise but I for one am happy for such a well-written piece to be included as part of the canon.

Womb to Tomb – Joseph Wesley (Analog 1969)

Harry Harrison’s short blurb makes the point that this story, which harks back to the days of vast fleets of mile-long ‘planet-blaster’ ships, looks at the effects of battle on individual soldiers.
Earth is at war with the Kwartah, a race which has invaded a large number of human worlds.
Admiral Burkens runs a rehabilitation centre for soldiers sent back from the front. Senator Grimes arrives to check up on his son, recently admitted, and learns the awful truth about what price Humanity is paying for victory.
There is an unstated connection here with the Vietnam War, a connection which Ballard broadcasts all too clearly in his story.

Like Father – John Hartridge (New Worlds 1969)

Fingest, a time-traveller, returns to a few million years ago to plant his sperm in the womb of an early hominid, out of a sense of ‘because I can’ it would appear, as much as out of a desire to piss off his scientific colleagues. travelling forward through time he traces the progress of this sadly rather predictable tale.
By 1969 one would have thought the Birth of Man concept had been pretty much mined out. Having said that, Julian May did it far better later – and at great length – in the Pliocene Exiles Saga. It’s the basis for Quatermass and The Pit, at least two Doctor Who stories, ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ and countless other earlier tales. One is at a loss to see why this rather weak piece was included here, or published in ‘New Worlds’ of all places.

The Electric Ant – Philip K Dick (Fantasy & Science Fiction 1969)

We’re in familiar Dick territory here with a man who discovers he is an ‘electric ant’, i.e. an artificial human with a tape in his chest which is feeding him all his sensory input. When he interferes with the tape he finds his perception of the world changed. What will happen, he wonders, if the tape breaks or runs out. Despite the familiar theme, there is much food for philosophical thought provided by its limited number of pages.

The Man Inside – Bruce McAllister (Galaxy Magazine 1969)

A very short and very clever story which deals with a young child’s viewpoint of his schizophrenic catatonic father.
Dr Plankt has developed a device which may be able to print out his father’s thoughts. Over a mere two and a half pages McAllister produces one of the best short stories I’ve come across with an ending that is tragic, poetic, symbolic and probably quite a number of other –ics that I haven’t thought of yet.

Now Hear The Word of The Lord – Algis Budrys (Galaxy Magazine 1969)

Budrys is one of the serious masters of SF and seldom disappoints. This is a complex tale which begins with a man who types letters all day in a spartan office and then goes back to an even more spartan hotel. When you begin to think you know what’s going on, you find you don’t.

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