I found this old paperback volume on a wire discount rack at Half-Price Books and bought it for a dollar. It seemed that there were several classics by well-known science fiction writers within, and my plan was to compare what was written back in 1967 with what is written nowadays. I was in the midst of reading “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer, and it was my intention to compare the sociological and economic changes that have taken place in the last several decades with the literary changes during the same period, using the science fiction “best of” volumes I had been recently reading as a point of reference. Alas, it did not work out. I had expected the 1967 stories to be superior to the 2012 stories, but they were not. They were different, yes, but not better.
Part of it may have to do with the selections of the editors. I remember more dynamic stories from back in the late sixties that were not included in this book. But then again, I may have been merely looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.
So as I launch into some observations of the volume at hand, I must confess that I will just take it as it comes, story by story, and not try to link it to some grand overall historical trend.
The first story in the book is “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, and this is, of course, the story on which the “Total Recall” movies are based. If you have seen the films, especially the superior first one with Arnold Schwarzenegger, you realize as you read the story that it is rather slight in comparison. It contains the germ of the memory implantation idea, nothing more. It is clever but undistinguished as far as style is concerned. Philip K. Dick was an idea man first, and his works seldom display more than rudimentary competence as far as their prose is concerned.
Next comes “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw, which is a real science fiction classic. Though only a few thousand words long, it introduces a new technological concept, creates deep mood and atmosphere, and offers profound characterization that fits the tale perfectly. This is short science fiction at its best.
“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty is another true classic of science fiction. Lafferty was a singular phenomenon back in the sixties and seventies in science fiction and fantasy. His works were dark, funny, abrasive, and totally unique. No one wrote quite like Lafferty and no one has ever since. Though he did win some awards back then, he has never received the recognition he deserved. Many modern readers might not even remember who he was or how important he was to the field, but back in the day he was a favorite of a number of writers who went on to much more renown than Lafferty himself received.
“Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock is the longest story in the book. It won the Nebula Award for best novella that year, and it was met with great acclaim and controversy. At the time it was a radical concept. A time traveler journeys back to the time of Christ. He finds the historical Jesus, but instead of being a dynamic prophet, Jesus is a sniveling imbecile who can do nothing on his own. The time traveler takes his place and ends up fulfilling his ministry and dying on the cross. Though back then the story was somewhat shocking to the science fiction readership, I remember when I read it I was somewhat less than impressed. Reading it now after all that time, I find it to be not much more than a fairly well-told gimmick story. A time traveler goes back and takes the place of a famous historical figure. Yeah, okay. The comment by the editors in the story introduction annoyed me; they stated that this story had more respect and compassion for the subject than a multitude of Biblical epics. No, I don’t think so. The writer obviously has no respect for a Christian’s interpretation of events, though I must say Moorcock does fairly well at delving, in flashbacks, into the psychology of a man who would allow himself to be brutally tortured for the sake of fulfilling someone else’s historical destiny.
And now I will skip over some of the other stories. Some were clever, some undistinguished, and one was so poorly written that I wondered how it ever got into a best of the year volume. For one thing, it was novelette length but its story could have been told in a few thousand words. For another, it was repetitious and boring and not at all clear.
I have saved the best for last. The book has two novelettes by Roger Zelazny, one of the greatest stylists science fiction has ever produced. They are not, in my opinion, his best work. My Zelazny favorites are the novelettes “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, and the novels “This Immortal” and “Lord of Light”. But they are nevertheless Zelazny in the fertile, productive period when he was bursting out into the limelight and dazzling the science fiction community with his brilliance. Both stories are set in the far future. “The Keys to December” concerns humans that have been turned into catlike creatures terraforming a new world to accommodate their unique physiological needs. They are forced to confront the moral aspects of their work when less advanced forms of life become affected by the changes they are making. But the best story in the book is the closing one, the second Zelazny offering called “For a Breath I Tarry”. Despite the fact that humankind has died out, the robots they created continue to maintain the Earth. The robot called Frost who controls and monitors the northern hemisphere sets out to discover what it means to be human. Into this basic tale Zelazny weaves mythology and theology. In the dialog between a satellite circling the planet and another powerful mechanical being far underground there are echoes of the bargain between God and Satan in the book of Job. If Frost fails in his quest, he will lose his position of power and be relegated to a place underground where he will serve the overlord machine there. How Frost sets about reading the library of humanity, studying human artifacts, constructing a human prototype and uploading his consciousness into it is told with superb style, heartfelt emotion, deep knowledge of mythological archetypes and consummate skill. Zelazny truly was one of the shining lights of science fiction and fantasy literature.
In closing, I have to say that this volume disappointed me more than most anthologies I have recently read. I think it is because my expectations were so high. Part of it, I think, is that I read differently now than I read back then. Back in the early seventies I read science fiction with the thrill of first discovery, and I didn’t really realize or care that some of it was not so well written. Now, with four more decades of reading and writing behind me, I am much more discerning and discriminating in my tastes. If a story that is obviously mediocre makes it into an anthology that is supposed to represent the best work of the year, I am more apt to call foul. I have learned a thing or two in the meantime and am more easily able to tell when a story works and when it doesn’t. It turns out that in every era there are poor, mediocre, and great works of art, and much more of the first two than the last. That’s just the way it is.