My life in outer space

Year’s Best Science Fiction No 6 – Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss (Eds) (1973)

The Year's Best Science Fiction 6

In the Matter of the Assassin Merefirs – Ken W Purdy (Analog 1972)
As for Our Fatal Continuity… – Brian W Aldiss (New Worlds 3 1971)
The Old Folks – James E Gunn (Nova 2 1972)
From Sea to Shining Sea – Jonathan Ela (Sierra Club Bulletin 1972)
Weihnachtabend – Keith Roberts (New Worlds 4 1972)
The Years – Robert F Young (Galaxy 1972)
Darkness – Andre Carneiro – trans by Leo L Barrow (Nova 2 1972)
Cymbal Player – Lawrence Sail (Cornudo 1972)
Report from the Planet Proteus – Lawrence Sail (Cornudo 1972)
Columbus on St Domenica – John Cotton (Sceptre Press 1972)
After Death – Patricia Beer (New Statesman 1972)
Faex Delenda Est – Theodore R Cogswell (Cornudo 1972)
Words of Warning – Alex Hamilton (Flies on the Wall 1972)
Out, Wit! – Howard L Myers (Analog 1972)
An Imaginary Journey to the Moon – Victor Sabah (1972)
The Head and The Hand – Christopher Priest (New Worlds 3 1971)
Hero – Joe W Haldeman (Analog 1972)

Brian Aldiss’ afterword is, as always, a masterclass in the examination of the nature of SF. Here he is examining the possible consequences of the plethora of books about to be released which deal (in one way or another) with the history of SF. One of them (‘Billion Year Spree’) is his own. It was later expanded and revised as ‘Trillion Year Spree’
Perhaps mischievously, Aldiss moves on to briefly examine the history of SF and celebrate the new diversity of the genre which seems to be in direct conflict with what Harrison says in the preface. He is merely making the point, however, that these many and various SF histories of varying length and quality should all be welcomed since they open up the debate about what SF was, what it is and into what it may evolve. In the thirty-five years since this book was published the ‘SF is dead’ brigade have been proven wrong since SF continues to evolve and innovate and often produce brilliant work, if not masterpieces.
Theodore Sturgeon was right when he said ‘90% of everything is rubbish’ (or words to that effect) and ninety percent of SF has always been rubbish. It still is, but there is always that ten percent of pure quality cream and brilliance which floats to the top. To be fair, fifty percent of the ninety percent is usually fairly entertaining hokum and I have never had a problem with that.
Long live SF! Long live the cream! Long live the hokum!

The Assassin Merefirs – Ken W Purdy

It is shame that Purdy did not write more SF. His short stories are amazingly inventive, peopled with extraordinary characters that seem to leap fully-rounded from the pen. Here we have a dramatisation of a court case, from spme period in the future, although the bureaucracy and cronyism of the court environment does not seem to have advanced much.

As to Our Fatal Continuity – Brian Aldiss

Spookily prescient, this Aldiss piece is the introduction to a fictitious book about Art, concentrating on the work of an artist born in 1972. The titles of the artist’s work are last words of various public figures, as in the title of the piece.
It’s a very erudite study of the art world and predicts, to a certain extent, today’s conceptual art and installation work.

The Old Folks – James E Gunn

Another prescient tale – albeit somewhat in the style of The Twilight Zone – in which a young couple and their son visit the wife’s parents who have retired to a senior citizen’s community (come to think of it, the community could have been called The Twilight Zone).
While the grandparents are at a town meeting the young child is – apparently deliberately – run down by an elderly lady in her car who drives away.
The couple drive the child to the town hall, ostensibly to find a doctor – where they discover that the old people have an agenda, and a burning resentment against the young.
It reflects the growing politicisation of the over-sixties in America at the time, a movement which has grown in strength ever since although it is not clear if the movement’s policies include the hatred and disenfranchisement of one’s own children.

From Sea to Shining Sea – Jonathan Ela

Rather like Orson Welles’ ‘War of The Worlds’ this tongue-in-cheek proposal for a coast-to-coast US canal, utilising nuclear explosions as part of the construction and advocating the removal of some of the ‘less aesthetic’ parts of the Rocky Mountains was taken seriously by many readers and apparently one irate congressman. Is it SF? I suspect it is, and a very original and entertaining piece, redolent of the satirical SF of Sheckley and Vonnegut.

Weinachtabend – Keith Roberts

This is how one writes a short story. Roberts sets his in a Britain under Nazi rule (or ‘The Two Empires’ as it is now called). Martin is a trusted aide to the Minister and is invited to his country house for Christmas talking along a young Aryan lady with him. In his room he finds a book, a banned publication of Jewish/American propaganda and gets a call from an American reporter.
It’s a very clever story. The hero is continually running through his thoughts and doubts on the page as though reviewing ‘alternate actions’. This is a device often used on TV and film but is not often seen in literature. In this story it is also entirely appropriate since this is a view of an alternate history. The reader soon gets the idea of what is going on, but Roberts is careful not to flood the piece with historical information. The setting is important but is secondary to the story which is about motivation and manipulation. Just who is pulling the strings?

The Years – Robert F Young

Rather like the time-travel tale in SF4 this has dated badly. An old man manages to bribe his way into a time-travel machine and returns to see his dead wife as she was when he first met her. however the teenage version of his wife gets the wrong impression when she sees him staring at her and calls him a dirty old man. This sours his memories of her.

Darkness – Andre Carneiro

An example of Brazilian SF which is very good and very memorable, reminiscent of Wells’ tale of the man who visits the country of the blind. When an odd darkness falls across the world, flamesbecome cool and then non-existent, the sun disappears and the narrator is taken in by a group of blind people who have their own farm. Idiosyncratic, atmospheric and poetic.

Poetry:-

Cymbal Player – Lawrence Sail
Report from the Planet Proteus – Lawrence Sail
Columbus on St Domenica – John Cotton
After Death – Patricia Beer
Faex Delenda Est – Theodore R Cogswell

Words of Warning – Alex Hamilton

A well-written and humourous piece set in the world of academia where words are unaccountably escaping from books and running away.

Out, Wit! – Howard L Myers

A very cleverly written piece, composed in a series of letters between a scientist and the editor of a scientific journal. A promising young student, Jonathan Wallis, is the subject of the initial discourse. The paper he intends to present is entitled ‘Backward to Alchemy’, apparently detailing a method by which elements may be transmuted and leading the way to a cold fusion nuclear process. The student’s presentation, however, is seen as disrespectful which leads to an almost inevitable sequence of events. It’s a tale which takes a sideswipe at the scientific community itself, regularly criticised and indeed lampooned in fiction by various authors from Fred Hoyle to Stanislaw Lem to Connie Willis. The moral of the tale ultimately is that it’s the science that’s important, not the reputations of the individual scientists.

An Imaginary Journey to the Moon – Victor Sabah

I am often impressed by surprising and heartwarming events. The private passions and enthusiasms of ordinary people can sometimes have the most extraordinary consequences, as in the case of Elaine and Larry Elbert who spent two years in Ghana teaching for the American Peace Corps at the curiously named Hohoe Secondary School. Due to a chronic shortage of books there they appealed (not to any church organisation who would doubtless have sent truckloads of Bibles) but to the Science Fiction Writers of America, who supplied copious reading matter for the students’ edification. As a result Victor Sabah wrote this story as part of a school exercise. The passion that the Elberts (and the SFWA) instilled in him clearly shows through. One wishes that there were Elberts at every school.

The Head and The Hand – Christopher Priest

A Ballard-esque piece from Priest, who never fails to impress with work of depth and subtlety, often with disturbing undertones. This is the tale of an artist whose performances consist of amputation. Now an old man confined to a wheelchair, wheeled about by his old friend and collaborator, he is called upon to perform his final work. As is often with stories in this series, there is an odd prescience here which anticipates some of the more bizarre reality shows such as ‘Jackass’ or ‘Dirty Sanchez’ where acts of self-mutilation are encouraged and celebrated.
Central to this story however is the relationship between the artist, his minder and his wife.
Like Ballard, Priest produces work which has both a poetic element and has a haunting quality which keeps the story in one’s mind.

Hero – Joe W Haldeman

This story eventually became part of the classic novel ‘The Forever War’.

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